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29th Feb 2024

Adapting to Southern Europe's 'new normal' — from droughts to floods

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Extreme weather events — including major droughts, unusual heat waves and severe flooding — have recently exacerbated agricultural production difficulties in southern Europe.

The first thing rain washes away is the memory of the drought, as the saying goes.

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But climate change is a problem that is not going to be washed away soon. Concerns remain for many water-stressed countries which have seen longer and more intense droughts over the past few years.

Experts argue that adaptation and mitigation plans are key to facing the likely dryer conditions expected especially in southern Europe.

To alleviate the impact of recent droughts and floods on agricultural production, Portugal, Spain, France and Italy are now seeking to mobilise special emergency funds to help farmers.

"We should mobilise the agricultural reserve. It is a crisis situation. It is climate-related but it does have a direct effect on agricultural markets" Spanish agriculture minister Luis Plans said on Tuesday (30 May) during a council meeting in Brussels.

Under the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a financial envelope of €450m per year can be used by member states as a last resort to cope with a major crisis. But only €250m remains available in 2023.

"We will propose the distribution of the remaining amount of the agriculture reserve taking into account the specific countries, in which the farmers are the most affected by droughts and floods," EU commissioner for agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski told ministers.

Iberian peninsula's impacts

This spring has been one of the driest on record for countries like Spain and Portugal, both of which recorded their highest-ever April temperatures.

But it is very likely that droughts will expand to other countries and intensify as the summer gets closer.

According to the European Drought Observatory, 21 percent of EU territory is under warning conditions — indicating unusual lack of rainfall and soil moisture deficit — while six percent is in alert conditions due to vegetation anomalies resulting from droughts.

In Portugal, droughts have impacted agricultural activities across more than 40 percent of the country, primarily affecting the cereal and extensive livestock sectors.

"There is an extreme drought situation," Portuguese agriculture minister Maria do Céu Antunes told her counterparts in Brussels on Tuesday.

Drought indicators across Europe, where red indicates alert conditions and orange warning conditions (Photo: European Drought Observatory)

In Spain, the recent torrential May rain has failed to redress the longstanding precipitation deficit that endangers crops and water reservoirs.

"It has rained but not enough to reverse the hydraulic drought and the meteorological drought," said Rubén del Campo, spokesperson of the national weather agency AEMET.

"We are far from the end of the drought," he added.

From October last year until April, rainfall dropped 24 percent below the average value, worsening the already problematic situation of water governance in the country.

In an internal document dated 23 May and seen by EUobserver, Madrid said that they are also facing a situation of "hydrological drought" in large areas that are in a pre-alert, alert, or emergency in terms of water scarcity.

Currently, Spain's reservoirs are filled to only 47 percent of their capacity, 21 percentage points below the 10-year average for this time of year. Recent heavy rainfalls haven't improved this situation.

"There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of an unsustainable agricultural exploitation of water resources [in Spain,] with the intensification and expansion of agriculture, more irrigation and more livestock [farming]," Hans-Martin Füssel, an expert at the European Environment Agency, told EUobserver in an interview.

Spain has to learn "to live with less water, ensuring that water is not wasted," he added.

Droughts are particularly impacting Spain's livestock farming and fruit and vegetable production, but a decline is also expected in cereal, leguminous, and oilseed production in the country's southern regions.

'Unquantifiable' damage

In certain Italian regions, the critical situation has been worsened by torrential rainfall causing rapid flooding and loss of human lives.

The damage is still "unquantifiable" as a large part of the affected area is still flooded, reads the internal document prepared by Portugal, Spain, Italy and France ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

Italian authorities are also concerned that the reduction in river flows due to the droughts has increased salinity in the country's largest delta, the Po River, potentially rendering the waters unusable for agriculture in the future.

"Man-made climate change intensifies the global water cycle, and increases the frequency and intensity of hydro-climatic extremes e.g that annual precipitation is falling over fewer days than before. As a result, increases in droughts as well as floods are possible in the same region," explains Füssel.

Meanwhile, France has raised the alarm over their low levels of groundwater reserves.

The lack of rain over the past months, in combination with the high temperatures has escalated water evapotranspiration, which in turn is worsening droughts, especially in southern France.

Italy is the biggest producer of fruit and vegetables in the EU, followed by Spain, Germany and France.

Climate mitigation

Speaking about how countries such as Spain are likely to experience prolonged droughts in the near future, Füssel said that responsible authorities should change their "crisis-management mode" to a "risk-management mode" where the "new normal" is considered part of the plan.

In practice, this means, for example, combining river basin management plans with drought management plans.

"After several years of droughts, one shouldn't be surprised that those droughts are reoccurring," he also said.

Europe's drought 'may be worst in 500 years'

According to data from the EU's Joint Research Centre, over half of Europe is in danger of drought — and may be suffering its worst drought in 500 years.

Almost two-thirds of Europe in danger of drought

Data released by the European Drought Observatory show 60 percent of Europe and the United Kingdom is currently in a state of drought, with farming, homes and industry being affected. Drought conditions have also led to an increase in wildfires.

Droughts could be the rule rather than the exception in Europe

The European Commission has kicked off an EU-wide political debate, aimed at establishing the "right" pricing on water as well as promoting water-saving habits such as efficient devices on shower heads. This comes with the prospect of most EU countries suffering from droughts by 2070.

Droughts prompt calls to cut water use amid harvest fears

With the prolonged lack of rain and high temperatures, fears have emerged over water shortages and droughts decreasing crop yields — prompting calls to use less water and reuse urban wastewater for agricultural irrigation.

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